Hillary’s Hair Redux

I wrote “Hillary’s Hair” four years ago, in 2012. Much has changed, much hasn’t. Hillary’s hair is perfectly professional once more because she’s running for President again. There was something in that 2012 essay I didn’t remember: she was among the most admired woman in annual polls when she was Secretary of State. Now some Americans chant “lock her up.”

Among conservatives, that’s something that hasn’t changed. When I wrote “Hillary’s Hair” in 2012, I recalled Republicans’ vicious attacks on her when she was FLOTUS. They denigrated her then—stopped her healthcare reform efforts, not a proper cause for a first lady, didn’t like her hair, her voice, her face—and kept slinging mud at her all these years until a lot of people came to believe it.

See John Oliver for a detailed dissection of the difference between Hillary’s so-called scandals and Trump’s actual scandals.


As Oliver says, she’s done some stuff that should irritate us, but how many Benghazi/email investigations do you need before you accept that she’s done nothing criminal? How many times must fact checkers show 80% lies on Trump’s side and 20% on hers before you stop calling her the dishonest one?

The woman isn’t perfect. No human being, presidential or otherwise—has ever been perfect. I have come to love Obama, to be proud of what he’s accomplished in spite of a do-nothing Congress. I celebrate his scandal-free eight years, but don’t like the reliance on drone bombing or the number of deportations he’s done. And please, shut down that Dakota Access pipeline!

I’m certain to have issues with Hillary’s presidency too. Maybe, for example, she’s chummy with Wall Street: it’s something we should keep an eye on once she’s in office. But in her long years of public service, as governor’s wife, First Lady, senator and Secretary of State, she’s worked for education and healthcare. In the Colorado Independent this week—where you can still find real reporting—a leader of Colorado’s Bernie campaign outlined Hillary’s career of championing education and healthcare, starting with her job after law school with the Children’s Defense Fund. He urged us to vote for her. http://www.coloradoindependent.com/161842/guest-post-bernie-bros-for-hillary

When Obama was elected the racism simmering beneath our skins erupted. It took me by surprise then, but I’m braced for a similar event now. John McCain has already said conservatives, happy to hamstring the judicial branch of our democracy, won’t approve any Supreme Court nominee she selects. Those who still believe a woman’s place is in the home will vow to oppose her as they did Obama, no matter how it hurts the rest of us. As Margaret Talbot said in the New Yorker this week, “Like the female protagonist of a quest narrative—or, perhaps, of a dystopian fantasy—Clinton has made it through all her challenges to face the bull-headed Minotaur of sexism at the end of the maze.”

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Only at ALTA: American Literary Translators Association

I’ve said this before, but never tire of the experience: only at ALTA do people read my nametag and ask: “Slovak?” It always pleases and embarrasses me, because I know nothing of my grandmother’s tongue, and my name is hers.

Only at ALTA can you wander around the lobby and hear five or six languages. You see people you want to talk to and somehow that never happens. I glimpse Dennis Maloney across the room, but I’m heading one way and he’s going another.

The first night I attend “Reading in Remembrance” in a room ringed by the glittering lights of the city below. It’s a memorial reading for the likes of Gregory Rabassa, translators past, important to the translators present, reading in their honor. Pam Carmell talks about Miller Williams, who was her mentor and model and a founder of ALTA, appreciation warming her words. It’s a fine love, the regard we have for those who generously helped us along our road.

Only at ALTA could you hear statements like:

47% of translators agree that the word “mullet” is untranslatable except in Italian.

A bookseller responding to the availability of translated work says, “Africa is having a moment—God, I hate that expression.”

About the lack of consistency in printing translator names on books, another says, “I don’t think the market cares, but fuck the market.”

Only at ALTA would J Kates rant indignantly about the new translation of the Aeneid: “whose name is on the cover? Seamus Heaney’s.” On most translated books, the author’s name appears in 20-point type. The “translated by” is barely readable if it appears at all. “That’s because it’s Seamus Heaney,” I reply. “Exactly!” J Kates responds. “Who knows Virgil?”

Literary translation is also “having a moment” (I too dislike the expression) and a record 400 plus attend this conference. There used to be 60 people signed up for bilingual readings. This year there are 165: emerging Uruguayan poets, Italian fiction, Central American writers, Germanic languages including Yiddish, French poetry and prose, Arabic and Farsi, Mexican, Persian, Kurdish, Russian, Romanian…and more. Besides the daily readings, evening readings are held in bars, coffee shops and bookstores.

I read my poignant Agustín Cadena story, “The Former Colleague,” (https://exchanges.uiowa.edu/issues/undercurrents/new-article-3/) and the beginning of a suspenseful Mónica Lavín story, “A Textbook Case,” concerning consequences of calling a wrong number. When my time’s up, I give them the link. “It escalates,” I grin. Afterwards three people ask me for the link again, scribble it on their programs, to finish reading that story:


The moderator breaths: “you took exactly ten minutes,” awe in her voice. May I mention that it’s easy to time your reading in advance and know how long it takes? Just saying.

A magazine editor asks if I have others, gives me his card. You dream of such things happening, but normally they don’t. No guarantees, in any case. Submit, submit and let the translations fall where they may.

“Literary translation is linguistic hospitality,” Aron Aji says. Besides running the teaching translation workshop, he’s ALTA’s new president, heads the literary translation program at Iowa and translates from the Turkish. “We translate and teach translation in part to promote global literacy.” In part, I’m attracted to translation because it’s a service and a good cause. Once you love a country’s literature, it’s hard to regard its people as enemies.

Aji mentions In Translation as a good introductory text. A woman raises her hand, asks him to repeat the editors’ names. “Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky,” he says, “and if you’ll turn around, you can shake hands with Esther Allen, who is sitting behind you.” Only at ALTA.

Three days, four time slots per day, nine sessions per time slot. I barely spend time with half those I meant to see. On the last day I run into Dennis Maloney, remind him that White Pine published my translations of Elsa Cross poems long ago, 1994. “We just reprinted that anthology,” he says. Universities use it. These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women.

After the third panel on the third day, I’m thinking I’ll just go to my room and lie down. On the way I stop to talk to C.M. Mayo and Alberto Ruy-Sánchez. They are conversing in Spanish and I discover I can’t utter a word: code-switching is beyond my exhausted abilities.

The last evening I attend the popular Declamación, for which the only rules are you can’t have paper in your hand and you can’t read your own stuff. Many translators are also poets and apt to read their poems at the slightest pretext. I hear a Spanish poem, a Chinese performance piece in four voices, a hauntingly beautiful Farsi song, a comical German piece. Someone is singing a poem in Mandarin as I leave. Only at ALTA. But no more, no more. It is ten p.m. and I have a plane to catch in the morning.


Posted in Translation | 8 Comments

Reading Translations

September was National Translation Month and long ago Monique, the local organizer, asked me to read for it. I don’t read much anymore. When I was younger and writing poetry, I read often. After people yelled for a beer in the midst of my poem a few times, I swore off reading in bars. Then someone read a poem he’d written on a roll of toilet paper. It took the entire roll and a really long time. So I swore off open mics. Later, teaching at Denver School of the Arts, I did readings with the kids and didn’t have the energy for anything else.

Since retiring from teaching, I’ve been writing translations with some success and was being asked to read my translations, so I said yes. I didn’t know where the reading was. A bookstore I assumed. It was months away.

The week of the reading arrived, the way such things tiptoe up behind you and scare the stuffing out of you. Monique posted photos of three featured readers, our bios, date and place. I looked at the website. A café, maybe? Not a bookstore? Neither. It was a bar full of rambunctious clientele on a Monday night. The reading was in a room joined to the bar by two wide doorways.

I was reading translations in a bar. “I can do this,” I muttered grimly, blinking to adjust to the dimness. There was a stage, lights, a mic. Maybe it would be O.K. I was doing this for Mónica Lavín, Agustín Cadena and Rafael Courtoisie, contemporary writers whose flash fiction I had translated. For this, they would owe me.

A few people wandered in, obviously participants: they were carrying books. It turned out that besides the translators, four others were reading their favorite writers in translation. Kudos to Monique: nice idea. My old habit of counting the house kicked in. All but three of the ten people in the room were on the program. One of the three was Monique and another the husband of a reader. Still, I was proud of myself. Not for a moment did I consider finding a back door, professing to have a sudden emergency, or exclaiming, “Wait, this is a translation reading?”

There was a Chinese translation of the “To be or not to be” monologue by a Mr. Zhu, being read by Yanmin Huang; translations of a contemporary French poet by Julie Carr; and me. After us, four poets read translated work. Karen Douglass compared two translations of Greek poet George Seferis, which would have been interesting, if I’d been able to hear it.

I’d have liked to hear all of it, but the bar crowd cranked up its volume and during my reading the mic failed. “I heard the first half of your second piece and then zip,” one of the attendees told me. For the rest of the readings—we soldiered on admirably—I cupped my hands behind my ears, leaned forward in my chair, caught every fourth word. It was easier to hear the bar conversation. Tall young dudes in beards and boots, those guys projected.

I’m told the poetry readings there in the spring filled the room and the bar denizens were quiet as church mice. I’m told the sound system worked fine. Credit where due: Monique had done all she could to ensure a good reading, and was dismayed by the situation. Not to worry, Monique. I’m pretty sure it’s my karma—the mic went out while I was reading, didn’t it? Your next event will be fine.

We abandoned the dead mic and stage, huddled together as if we were the temperance committee meeting while the cowboys whooped it up in the saloon. When the cowboys left, the bar quieted for the final reading, and in our corral of chairs, we at last could hear clearly.

It was “One of These Days” from No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, the story about the dentist. García Márquez said it was his best book, but he had to write One Hundred Years of Solitude to get anyone to read it. It was a joy to hear J. S. Bernstein’s fine work again: we were listening to his words, after all.

The great translator Gregory Rabassa got the job of translating One Hundred Years. Someone asked if he had enough Spanish to do that and Rabassa replied that the issue would be whether he had enough English. Ken Greenley read the dentist story and did it well. Thus the evening ended on a satisfying note, with García Márquez’ delicious, economical story so ably told for us by Bernstein. But no one mentioned the translator’s name.


Posted in Humor, Translation | 5 Comments

On Reading of the Closing of the Next to Last Howard Johnson’s

Indian Head Nickel

Indian Head Nickel

As a working class girl, I found waitressing more lucrative than being a department store clerk, which I also tried. You could get your working permit at fourteen, a thing my mother took me to do within days of that birthday. We had little money and I understood I had to start contributing. I worked in downtown stores the next two or three years, back when downtown Vero Beach, Florida was a vibrant place, and not the mostly vacant museum of the past it is now. But I applied at Howard Johnson’s as soon as I was old enough. The real money was in waitressing.

HoJos was on U.S. 1, the main north-south route before there were interstates. U.S. 1 went through town and was dotted with orange juice stands, reptile farms, shops featuring jewelry and lamps made from shells, gas stations (30 cents a gallon), motels and A &W drive-ins, where your root beer came in a heavy, iced glass mug with a foamy head. Howard Johnson’s restaurants were scattered along U.S. 1 from Miami to the New Jersey Turnpike.

I opened at HoJos the summer after high school. Dad got me up in the dark, dropped me off at 5:30. Kitchen crew was already there, the sizzle of bacon greeting me as I walked in. The parking lot spread behind and to the side of the long building with its orange roof and wall of windows. I worked the counter and spotted my morning regulars coming up the sidewalk. Here comes poached eggs and wheat toast. I put the order in, got a setup and coffee on the counter as the gentleman slid onto his stool. Those businessmen who had breakfast at my counter every weekday morning, always ordered the same thing, always sat at the same place, silently reading their newspapers, were a mainstay of my earnings. Some were routinely generous; others left precisely the correct percentage each time. I imagined them leaving home while their wives slept, savoring the hour of quiet before they slid a quarter onto the counter and went to work.

A quarter was a decent tip. Most egg dishes were a dollar or less. Those days tips were change. I came home with jingling pockets, began collecting Indian head/buffalo nickels, managed to fill most of a coin collection holder with them. They’d stopped making them in the late 1930s. They were already scarce. My collection was stolen years later. Remembering it now, I feel again the sting of its loss. I worked hard for those coins and had a particular attachment to the Indian profile that adorned them.

Waitresses were white, kitchen crew black. The breakfast cook already at the grill when I arrived was a small, lean man I thought of as old. Now I suppose he may have been in his 40s. He was a skilled short order cook who cracked eggs two at a time in his hand, never broke a yolk or dropped shell into them, and delivered them exactly as ordered. He did all that with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, the ash lengthening until I was certain it would fall into the over easy I was waiting for, but somehow never did. He flicked it into the glass HoJo ashtray he kept beside the grill just in time.

It didn’t occur to me to question the racial order of things. It was the early 60s and I’d graduated from a segregated high school. The downtown stores I’d worked in had colored and white water fountains. I didn’t truly ponder any of it until I moved away. Moving away often provides perspective.

At lunch I had counter customers, ice cream orders to fill as well as the cash register to run. The ice cream was in round tubs beneath the counter along with basins of syrups, bananas and bright cherries. Dining room waitresses brought me their ice cream orders: floats and shakes I poured into tall glasses, sundaes and scoops of butter crunch or mint chocolate chip in footed metal dishes. I usually worked a 9-hour shift, had ten-minute breaks once or twice, and a 30-minute lunch break. I often had the fried clams, a novelty in my normal diet. I was eighteen and making enough to buy my books for college and occasional groceries for home.

Between each ice cream order I dunked the scoop in the rinse water. My hand was always wet when I dug into the cold tubs. No one wore plastic gloves—did they even exist? The outside of my right index finger, the surface the scoop leaned against, began to crack. A series of short fissures developed along its length over months. After I stopped scooping ice cream, those gashes took a long time to heal. Scars of manual labor, they remained years after my last waitress job, reminders of work I was proud of and never wanted to do again.

Posted in Memoir | 9 Comments